Assange Faces U.S. Extradition After Years Holed Up In Ecuador's Embassy
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, for the first time in almost seven years, Julian Assange did not wake up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The co-founder of WikiLeaks is in police custody. A British judge has found him guilty of breaching the terms of his 2012 bail agreement.
Looming even larger, though, an extradition request by the United States, which wants Assange on one charge of conspiracy. So will Julian Assange ever sit in an American courtroom? We're joined now by former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti to work through that question. Renato, thanks for being back on the show.
RENATO MARIOTTI: Thank you.
MARTIN: Let's start with the charge. This is one count of conspiracy connected to the documents that former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leaked back in 2010, correct?
MARIOTTI: That's right.
MARTIN: And this is not a charge that he actually helped Chelsea Manning derive this information, it's that there was an attempt to do so. What sentence does that charge carry, that he attempted to help her break into sensitive government databases?
MARIOTTI: So the maximum statutory penalty is five years in prison. But ordinarily, ordinarily, I would expect that he would receive a sentence much below that. The X-factor here is that a judge has the obligation to consider all of the history and characteristics of Mr. Assange, as well as his other conduct. And the reality is, of course, that there are a lot of other reasons why Mr. Assange might receive a larger sentence and that could actually be up to the five years in prison.
MARTIN: What are the other reasons?
MARIOTTI: Well, for example, you know, the judge could consider harm that was caused by Mr. Assange is distribution of classified material. He might consider, or she might consider, the, you know, harm that was caused to the 2016 election.
So, you know, it's possible, for example, that, you know, prosecutors could present a wide variety of information about Mr. Assange that they would only have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence - in other words, by 51 percent - that would potentially sway a judge to increase the sentence but would not, itself, be the offense itself.
MARTIN: Which is interesting because this charge of conspiracy, it does not have anything to do with the WikiLeaks' dump of documents that had a negative effect on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. But you're saying it could affect a sentencing?
MARIOTTI: In fact, the judge would have to consider everything that he or she knew about Mr. Assange. And I'm sure the government would bring all of that to his or her attention.
MARTIN: First Amendment activists have been concerned that the United States might charge Assange with espionage because of the damage that was done by the release of those documents on national security grounds back in 2010. What does it tell you that that did not happen, that the charge was not espionage?
MARIOTTI: It tells me that the United States government was sensitive to that issue, either because they wanted to avoid a court challenge in the United States, or because they were concerned about the precedent that would set, or because the UK would not extradite purely for an offence of that type.
MARTIN: President Trump has had mixed messages about WikiLeaks, I think we can say. This is what the president said yesterday in the Oval Office when he was asked about the arrest of Julian Assange.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I know nothing about WikiLeaks, it's not my thing. And I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange. I've been seeing what's happened with Assange. And that will be a determination, I would imagine, mostly by the attorney general, who's doing an excellent job.
MARTIN: So saying he doesn't know anything about WikiLeaks. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, he heaped a whole lot of praise on the group.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks. This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable, it tells you the inner heart, you got to read it. It's been amazing what's coming out on WikiLeaks.
MARTIN: So the president, there, referring to what we were talking about - all those emails that were leaked from the DNC and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. So I guess the question to you, Renato, is, legally speaking, how much could an Assange trial here in the U.S. reveal in the larger context of the Mueller investigation?
MARIOTTI: Yeah. I think that there's certainly the possibility that a Assange trial - particularly if the government added more charges - could reveal a lot of detail about Assange's activities. It's also possible that a sentencing of Mr. Assange will reveal a lot. Because, as I mentioned earlier, the government would have, in fact, an obligation - not just the right but an obligation - to inform the court of what they knew about Mr. Assange's activities.
So I think that there's definitely a prospect that all of us are going to learn a lot more about Julian Assange in the years to come, unless Mr. Assange cooperates with the government.
MARTIN: Do you think his extradition to the U.S. is inevitable?
MARIOTTI: I think it would be. It's very hard for me to imagine him not being extradited at this time.
MARTIN: Renato Mariotti is a former federal prosecutor and he joined us on Skype. Renato, thanks so much.
MARIOTTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.